WASHINGTON • A federal trade panel has found that imports from China harm or threaten to harm the U.S. solar panel industry. That means a complaint by U.S. solar companies can continue.
Seven companies complained to the International Trade Commission in October that Chinese competitors were "dumping" solar products on global markets to depress prices. The complaint asks for tough trade penalties on Chinese solar imports.
The trade panel voted unanimously Friday to investigate. The companies that filed the complaint said the ruling affirmed their claims that massive subsidies by the Chinese government are enabling Chinese producers to drive out U.S. competition.
The case has caused a split in the solar industry. Some U.S. companies say Chinese imports have lowered prices for solar panels, helping consumers and promoting rapid growth of the industry.
The solar panel manufacturers have been struggling against stiff competition from China as well as weakening demand in Europe and other key markets, just as President Barack Obama is working to promote renewable energy.
U.S. companies' complaints about their Chinese rivals have been amplified by the controversy surrounding Solyndra Inc. Solyndra, based in California, cited competition from China as it filed for bankruptcy in September despite receiving a half-billion-dollar federal loan from the administration of President Barack Obama.
Solyndra isn't involved in the ITC case, but its failure embarrassed the White House and prompted a lengthy review by congressional Republicans critical of Obama's green energy policies.
U.S. energy officials say China spent more than $30 billion last year to subsidize its solar industry. Obama said last month that China has "questionable competitive practices" on clean energy and that his administration has fought "these kinds of dumping activities." The administration will act to enforce trade laws where appropriate, Obama said.
SolarWorld Industries America Inc. is leading the U.S. complaint. SolarWorld, based in Oregon, is the largest U.S. maker of silicon solar cells and panels and a subsidiary of SolarWorld, based in Germany.
Ben Santarris, a spokesman for the U.S. SolarWorld, called the decision to continue the case "a positive step toward restoring sustained international competition."
Others disagree. To counter the trade petition, a group of solar companies have formed the Coalition for Affordable Solar Energy. Members include California-based SunEdison, Recurrent Energy, SolarCity and Westinghouse Solar, as well as China-based Suntech Power Holdings Co.
The companies argue that the U.S. complaint could spark a trade war with China and raise prices for the entire industry.